What makes a unique school? Board seeks answer from state

Before the Board of Education decides on a possible solution for racial imbalance in two elementary schools, it’s seeking to have a key question answered: Are the schools exempt from the mandate?

Some board members and parents have insisted since the two schools that are imbalanced, New Lebanon and Hamilton Avenue School, are magnet schools they meet the state’s definition of a “unique school,” which makes them exempt from the Connecticut state law mandate to have racial balance. However, this is far from a universally accepted idea on the board, where several members say they believe the schools do not qualify because they are only partial magnets, not full.

To try and settle this question, board member Steven Anderson made a motion to get the board to send a letter to the state’s Department of Education looking for an answer as to whether the schools are unique schools, removing the need for the board to develop a plan of response at this time. He asked that this be done “promptly” in order to get an answer as quickly as possible from state Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor.

“It’s past time to call the question,” Mr. Anderson said. “There’s been a lot of discussion. I personally will vote for this even though I don’t think that the schools are unique schools. It’s an answer that we need to get as we keep tossing it around as a possible solution.”

Board member Jennifer Dayton added, “This will help clarify what they mean by the term ‘magnet schools’ and whether magnet schools can be partial magnet schools and unique schools or only if full magnet schools can be unique schools. Getting the information rapidly will help us tremendously.”

Board member Nancy Kail noted that even if the schools are found to be unique the board would still have decisions to make, but Mr. Anderson said it would at least get the state’s racial balance mandate off the table. The board has been instructed to submit a plan to balance the two schools, which are considered by the state to have too many minority students, and is facing a self-imposed October deadline to get that plan approved. However, board Chairman Leslie Moriarty has said that if needed more time is needed, the October vote would be pushed back.

But once the board decided to write the letter, it only began the debate about what the content and the tone of the letter would be. Mr. Anderson initially proposed that the letter say that the schools are unique schools and asking Mr. Pryor to either confirm or deny that. Board member Peter Sherr, though, said that while he wanted to send the letter, Mr. Anderson’s language put Greenwich at a “disadvantaged position from a potential legal position” and that the board should not be asking for the state’s interpretation of the law, but rather be more assertive by telling the state that the district believed it was in compliance.

“We should put the onus onto the state to prove to Greenwich that, in fact, we’re not in compliance and that their interpretation of the law and their regulation is different,” Mr. Sherr said. “By asking the permission of the commissioner and asking him to declare what his own regulations are puts us in a potentially bad position of taking our rights and essentially putting them in the hands of the commissioner.”

Ms. Moriarty said she believed the wording of the regulation was “ambiguous” and that there was no way to tell yet how the state would rule on whether the two schools are “unique.”

“I do not believe that we have a guaranteed case for unique schools, and I also believe it would be helpful for our district to put this as a question and not an assertion,” Ms. Moriarty said. “We’re going to ask the state for an opinion one way or the other… I don’t agree we should go forward and say ‘we assert this’ because basically then we’re throwing down the gauntlet saying, ‘This is how we’re going forward.’ As a board member, before I agree to that approach, I want to know the parameters that I’m working with.”

Board member Peter von Braun said he wanted to make sure that, whatever the answer, the state had its basis and the law and precedent and was “not just the commissioner’s opinion.” Board Vice Chairman Barbara O’Neill said it had to be a “clear legal definition” because “making a claim and then asking someone to come back at you is a no-win situation.”

“That’s what we’ve sought all along, so this is moving us where we’ve always wanted to go,” Ms. O’Neill said.

Board member Adriana Ospina said all of this was “wordsmithing” and that it was a waste of time and energy to put so much focus on how the letter is being phrased.

“Unfortunately we cannot unilaterally say, ‘This is how we see it’ because in the end we have to submit a plan that’s accepted,” Ms. Ospina said. “We shouldn’t spend so much time talking about how aggressive we’re going to be.”

Mr. Sherr insisted he was “not looking to go up to Hartford and punch the commissioner in the face” but he was “very concerned” that the state board would overreach its authority to impose something on Greenwich.

Ultimately the board voted to give Ms. Moriarty the authority to write the letter. The exact language of it was not finalized by deadline for this week’s edition of the Post.

Currently the board is considering a plan from Superintendent of Schools William McKersie to address both racial balance and facility utilization by making North Street and Parkway schools partial magnets and encouraging volunteer choice. Mr. Anderson also is putting forth a plan to redistrict some of North Street School’s students to Parkway to open more seats at North Street for a magnet program. Additionally, Mr. Sherr and Mr. von Braun have contended that since they believe the schools are unique, New Lebanon and Hamilton Avenue do not need racial balance and money could then be spent to strengthening their magnet programs as well as benefiting neighborhood schools.

The board is next expected to discuss this at its Sept. 26 meeting at 7 p.m. at Greenwich High School.

 

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